Half the Man I Want to Be.
I stood on the beach, gripped the sand with my toes, cold water dripping off my body. The MC boomed into the microphone “One Minute!” I secured my goggles jumped in the air, shook my arms out one last time and set the timer on my watch. Heart rate over 100 beats per minute and we hadn’t even started yet. The anxiety and excitement in the air was like a physical presence reminding me of what I was about to embark on. The MC starts the countdown, “Ten…nine…eight…seven…” I look my buddy Mark dead in the eye and tell him “Run your own race”, he responds with “No way!”(1) And Boom the gun was off and fifty of the most physically fit men between the ages 25-29 were sprinting into a lake for a 1.2 mile swim at seven in the morning.
Let me back up, four months earlier my friend Mark had approached me about training for a Half-Ironman. As a novice triathlete, I quickly agreed and was eager to tackle the new distance. The race comprised of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride finished by a 13.1 run. I had gotten started in the triathlon life from a previous relationship. At the time my girlfriend Allison, had told me she had done a triathlon. Naturally, I said to myself if she can do it, I can do it. So I committed to my first race. The first time I got in the pool, I couldn’t even swim a lap or 25 yards. When I rode my basic road bike I averaged around 15MPH and my runs were not what they used to be in high school. But I stuck with it and two years later here I was training for the biggest race of my life. Over the course of four months Mark and I had put in at least 200 hours of training ranging from early morning runs to late night swims, our longest day was a 67 mile ride in the dead heat of Florida between 11-3pm. We had put in the hours and we were ready. Or so we thought…
I dashed into the water until my legs couldn’t take me any further and broke into my easy flowing freestyle stroke. I kept telling myself to calm down and take it easy, it was going to be a long race. My plan was to hang with Mark during the entire swim but I was fairly sure after the first minute he had taken a significant lead with the front group, okay on to plan B. I settled into my breathing rhythm: three strokes breathe right; three strokes breathe left and silently thanked Allison for that tip that had changed my swimming career.(2) I worked my way through the traffic of swimmers; it felt as if I saw more human in the water than actual water in the lake, there were people everywhere. Nearing the half way point I saw a man swimming on his back inching his way to the finish and I thought to myself “Why is he swimming like that? He could go so much faster if he did it the right way.”(3) I pressed on, jumped out of the water after the first lap, did a little turn and back into the lake for lap number two. The second lap was hard and in the last five minutes I thought “I can’t wait to get on my bike.” After thirty-five minutes of straight swimming, out of the water I went, dashed up the hill towards the bike transition area. My uncle Chris was waiting for me at the edge of the lake cheering me on, I could hear his voice in my head but I couldn’t comprehend the words he was saying, it just felt good to hear a familiar voice and have support(4) but now the real race began. With swim cap and goggles off, I threw my bike shoes on, glasses and helmet on my head and grabbed my secret weapon fuel, pop tarts and headed out.
I feared the 56 mile bike was going to be the hardest part of the race; it was my weakest link of the three. I started out on the course which took me all through parts of Miami I had never seen; residential sub-divisions, farm lands and back roads with nothing. I hoped and prayed the wind would work in my favor. I passed as many people that passed me and made sure to ride within myself for the first hour. About half way through is where I had the idea to write this story, it gets lonely riding a bike on your own for three hours not speaking to anyone. The inspiration came twenty miles in when I approached a turn I saw a police officer and two racers on the side of the road, there had been a crash. As I passed, I saw a middle aged woman with blood dripping off her face remount her bike; she wasn’t finished, at least not yet. It was at that moment when I realized this triathlon was almost an exact replica of the life we live. How many times in my life had I heard “It’s not how many times we fall down but how many times we get back up.”?(5) And here she was, getting back up. Along the way, I made sure to say hello to people I passed and looked at all the cool bikes that passed me. Surprisingly, forty miles in my legs were feeling great and I was on pace to have the best race of my career. Right on cue I reached into my back pocket to eat and fuel myself for the run with my secret weapon pop tarts but they were gone. I checked my left pocket, nothing. They must have fallen out on the ride somewhere. With not many options and needing calories, I decided to load up on Gatorade for extra sugar to get me through. With five miles to go, I noticed a man on the side of the road with a flat and one of the pros had pulled over to help him change it. (6) Here was a professional triathlete, someone who gets paid to race and win that decided it was more important to stop and help others than pursue his own personal goals. I was inspired and thus another example of the human spirit. I cruised into the final mile, standing up on my pedals stretching out my legs and getting ready for the half-marathon run. I checked my computer and saw I had averaged 19.7MPH for the entire distance, the best ride of my career.(7) As I approached the transition area there were families with signs supporting their loved ones and random people yelled inspiring things to me as I passed. As soon as I hopped off my bike I knew there was a problem, my legs felt tight, really tight especially my hamstring. I jogged my bike to the rack, switched to my running shoes, took of my helmet and decided to stretch for a couple seconds and get focused.
I started running and my worry was confirmed, it was going to be the longest 13.1 miles of my life. At this point I was ahead of my goal time and knew if I could maintain 8:05min/mile I would finish in a great time. Seven minutes in I had to stop, my left hamstring seized up and I literally could not run. Walking and stretching, with the temperature rising in to the mid 80’s it was the first time during the entire race that I was questioning why I had signed up.(8) I pressed on to the first aid station where I ate a whole orange and banana, four electrolyte tablets, Gatorade and water and started running again. It worked out to where I could run seven minutes until my hamstring would tighten up and then would walk one or two. This continued for the final 12 miles, seven minutes of running followed by one or two walking. The entire run course was designed to take us through the Miami Zoo, we ran by lions and elephants and families who were just there for the day. Random people cheered for random people they didn’t know. Hundreds of other competitors were on the course at this point all just trying to finish. As people saw me stretching, the veteran racers knew exactly what I was going through and offered me advice and salt tablets. The volunteer workers poured ice down the back of my shorts so I could ice my hamstring while I ran. All of this was done in an effort to get one man across the finish line and accomplish something he had never done. As I started the second lap of the run, I passed Mark’s parents who were sitting on the side and they cheered and waved me on. When I passed them I couldn’t help but think about my parents and how proud they would be when I told them I finished.(9) Even with all the pain in my legs, the hunger in my stomach and thought of not hitting my time goal, I knew I was going to finish and I couldn’t help feeling good. Fifty minutes later I was within one mile of the finish; I could hear the crowd in the distance cheering on finishers, the feel good music seeping into my brain. My pace quickened, the pain fell away, I was running at a seven minute mile pace after 69.5 miles of racing, and I felt invincible. Turning the corner I could see the finish line. With 200 yards to go I noticed a guy in front of me with the number 25 on his calf, that meant he was in my age group, I opened up into a full sprint for the last 50 yards passing him seconds before the finish line.(10) I was done. A medal draped over my head, recovery drink in my hand and gasping for precious oxygen. I walked around looking for a familiar face but saw none. I collapsed onto the ground and just laid there. It was over, four months of training and five hours and forty minutes later I had completed a half-ironman. After collecting my gear and limping to my car alone, I sat there and broke into tears. Maybe it was the fact of being alone, the physical pain, the mental anguish and struggle of the last six hours or a combination of all three. But in that moment I realized my emotion was a product of the wonderful idea that it wasn’t about whom I was now that I had finished but what I had become and experienced along the way.
I saw many things during the race, wonderful examples of athletics, endurance and strength but most inspiring, were the examples of compassion, thoughtfulness, volunteering and perseverance. Some of the sentences are highlighted in bold and those represent lessons that I learned or observed along the way. I encourage you to see how they relate to everyday life; some are more surprising than others. Go to the bold and read the sentence, the number after it is defined below. I thank everyone for their support and kind words throughout this process. Special thanks to Mark Courchane as a great training partner. It has now been a month since the race and I am back at it again, training for the Rome marathon in March and more triathlons in 2012. The lessons I learned on November 13 2011 will stick with me forever, I completed half the distance of a full IRONMAN and I keep training, racing, living, learning, loving and growing because I’ve realized I’m only half the man I want to be…
1) Different Strokes for Different Folks – everyone has a strategy that works best for them. My strategy was to run my own race and not worry about others or their times; staying in a good mental state would enable me to perform my best and not waste energy too early. Mark on the other hand, played an all or nothing game plan, trying to squeeze an amazing performance out of pressure and adrenaline and it worked for him, he finished 4th out of 50. Find what works for you and implement your strategy in all aspects of life.
2) The Ex-girlfriend – Allison was a college swimmer and a great athlete who taught me how to swim the right way. You never know why people are in your life or how long they will be. The thought that she got me started in the sport reminded me to value who you have in your life and always know you learn something from anybody.
3) The Ironman – That guy who was swimming on his back, then one who I thought was slow, yea him, well he had no arms. I realized this once I looked at the pictures, it was the only way he could finish the swim. Never underestimate someone’s spirit and courage. Life happens, keep living and be thankful you have all your limbs.
4) Family – Even though I knew I would finish the race before going in, I still wanted family there. It is indescribable how powerful a familiar voice is in a time of great hardship and stress. Thank you Uncle Chris.
5) Adversity – A middle aged woman doing something less than 99.5% of people her age will never attempt or finish would not let a little pain and blood stop her from her goal. What is your plan for adversity? Do we sit and worry about how bad it is or do we get right back on track and finish? Adversity is as tough as we make it. What a story she has to tell now.
6) Helping Hand – Sometimes people need help, if you can, be the helper. Aside from the satisfaction you will get through your good will, the World needs examples to pay it forward. I guarantee the next time that man sees a person needing a tire change he will remember the pro who took time to help him in the middle of the race.
7) Don’t underestimate yourself – You never know what you’re capable of. Believe in yourself, many times the mind will raise your body’s ability to perform in certain situations. Expect to have great results. Don’t limit yourself to small, realistic thinking. How realistic was the idea of a PC before it was invented and now it is how I am communicating this story.
8) Doubt – Doubt is normal, especially in the face of adversity or hardship. To question is natural, it is logic at its purest. Remember that when emotion is high, logic is low. Do not be impulsive, think things through and execute whatever the best course of action is.
9) Powerful thought – There wasn’t anything I wanted more than to see my Mom and Dad at the finish line. Since a little kid I have wanted to make them proud, probably because how thankful I am for how they’ve raised me. They both live far away so it couldn’t happen but I used that thought throughout the race to drive me. Constantly asking myself, “If they were here right now, would I want them to see me walking?” and that would pick me up. Channel positive and powerful thoughts to drive action.
10) Competition/Finishing – I believe there is a competitor in all of us, find your game, profession, sport or passion and watch how you flourish. When you compete, your game is automatically elevated, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose but either way a better performance is elicited and that’s the goal. Finishing is an amazing feeling, during your hardship ask yourself “How good am I going to feel once I have accomplished this..?” and let that feeling take over. Once you’ve felt it, store it in the bank for future motivation and usage.
“Be the change you wish to see in the World.”
By Christopher Sankey
Follow me on Twitter @DMSank